digital bubbles

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

#digicancon is the hashtag used for the public consultation process that Canadian Heritage embarked on this fall. I like hashtags usually because they can let you follow a discussion that many times falls outside your digital bubble.   Most times people would prefer to stay in their bubble. We want the best of us mirrored back to us, to continue our projection of ourselves; we want myth but are stuck with reality.  These bubbles, once the realm of trending fabulousness are now considered suspect.

It is easy to see why. We have now seen how dangerous ignorance the digital bubble influence can have; the US election might have been a direct result of people not truly understanding what they were reading, looking at or even engaging in online. Television, print and radio also had a hand in spreading ideas that had no truth or no intelligent rigour which I think is just as bad. In fact you could make a case that this truthiness in our culture was created a long time ago in original media sources. I am reminded of a David Brinkley’s quote, “news is what I say it is.”

But unfortunately the entire digital medium was ripe for most of the blame. It is a runaway industry for sure; start ups are able to leverage gazillions of dollars in investment and then the next thing you know taxi drivers all over the world are out of work.  What do you do about that?

I followed the #digicancon stream of thoughts and suggestions regarding how policy regarding Canadian content should be shaped with a big emphasis on digital and it seemed to seesaw between ‘Canadian content is the best!’ to ‘we are doomed and will all be working for Google if we aren’t careful’. The Canadian Heritage ministry retweeting only upbeat, ‘helpful’ tweets. Twitter’s 140 characters is not a great place for in depth consultation but I have hope. I have to and as my American friends put it, “you guys are debating your culture and where to put money while we just elected a climate change denier to the White House, sorry but no whining allowed.”

Yes, perspective is everything. What I see now is an enormous opportunity. Most of the #digicancon centred on content and protecting it and paying for it. For me this is a great relief that everyone seems to be onside in our cultural industries. But, there was far too much emphasis on television and film, those industries like music seem to be continually caught off guard by digital’s innovations. Popular they are, leaders in this new age they are not.

Say what you want about art galleries and their so called 19th century-ness, you can’t replace the experience of standing in front of a work of art.

Sutherland's painting of Churchill. Truth hurts.
Sutherland’s painting of Churchill. Truth hurts.

Speaking of art (the word tended to get lost in Canadian Heritage’s consultation shuffle) while I was following and contributing to the #digicancon debate online I also watched The Crown. The Crown is an original Netflix serial (and an example of how this medium is changing, hello CBC!) about the current Queen Elizabeth. One episode in particular stands out; and it discusses art and its potency so relevantly that I had to watch it twice.  In real life artist Graham Sutherland was commissioned by parliament to do a portrait of the very aged Winston Churchill. Churchill hated it and it disappeared into history. Considered a lost masterpiece it has been the subject of many books and stories.

In The Crown, Churchill, a painting hobbyist, challenges Sutherland and is generally hostile to the process. However there is a wonderful scene where the two men come closer together through an emotional discussion about art. But ultimately Sutherland does what artists do and paints what he wants and this hurts Churchill deeply.

Sutherland defends his work by stating that aging is cruel, not his painting. That we are blind to who we really are and art can help us get past the blindness.  Art sits in this nexus of feelings, external reality and truth. Even someone as brilliant as Churchill couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the distinction between his myth, England’s myth and reality.  My guess is that this program The Crown is challenging the notion of myth versus reality – which is better and for whom?

The #digicancon conversation could have used this kind of deep reflection on what it is we are actually working toward, we are discussing cultural policy right? I never completely got the impression that Canadian Heritage was truly engaged in the realities of the discussion, things like copyright, royalties, trade agreements that eschew cultural protections and finding a way to make huge platforms like Netflix help pay for Canadian content. Their own comments seemed almost naive compared to the vast amount of savvy digital media types who aggressively pushed their own agendas. But then a government always has to decide where to put its energies; a shiny myth that inspires or a dull reality that does the job.  Finding that balance has been the trick all along, digital disruptions notwithstanding.

Image fm Wikipedia

Successionists

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Succession planning is something I don’t think anyone thinks about until they are at a certain age or at a certain place in their lives when they realize that they can’t keep doing this (whatever this is) forever. After my parents dying succession was all I cared about – what happens to my work and all my stuff? I was somewhat obsessed and dragged my partner into creating a will with lawyers and everything. This came upon me from realizing in a very real way that once your parents die, you are next.

I am not a parent so I have no idea whether this is a big issue or not if you have kids. I’ve heard a variety of things over the years from parents who are uncertain about their legacies both materially and emotionally. It’s just not anything I know about.

But I do believe that when it comes to art succession is actually extremely important for many, many reasons. Art disappears without some kind of forward thinking and caring just like certain species or tracks of wilderness. We have art galleries that hold our collections of art and books on the lives of artists and they are supposed to be there for future generations. However that is kind of hard to do when your gallery’s collection is routinely on the chopping block or your gallery is not considered worthy of funding or there are no art books stores left. Succession however on a more earthy and present level seems to come in to play when either a greatly admired admin or an artistic visionary gets burned out or dies. At a recent meeting with contemporary artists in Peterborough a participant told an inspiring story about running an art organization that he let die so that it could be reborn with some new blood and ideas. Someone else at the table echoed this and added that they wished a lot of organizations would just die instead of becoming zombies and soaking up funding regardless of their relevance.

Passing the torch or letting something die – it makes for an uncomfotable conversation in the arts sector.  What I keep hearing endlessly is that “we are burned out” “there is no money” “working in the arts today is insane” “our system is broken” etc. etc. I hear a lot of negativity or fake optimism. I rarely hear an honest assessment in the public of the progress people are making – with the exception of some very brave American/European artist friends I know on Facebook who have no trouble mixing things up. It seems to me that we would do well to face our troubles head on; art making and surviving today cannot be sustained through the granting process or through traditional modes of arts support.

Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Sheile & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP
Remember this place? I spent hours here discovering Shiele & Cy Twombly. David Mirvish Books RIP

At this meeting an elder statesman who taught cultural studies for decades reiterated again what I keep hearing (and having been raked over the coals by my own community when I was quoted in a blog by RM Vaughan on arts administration I am loathe to bring it up again, but I will)  is that money in the arts is stuck in a trickle down paradigm helping no one but those at the top level – namely those who work in Canadian Heritage and The Canada Council for the Arts (provincial counterparts are just a lower tier on the fountain of funding). These people do help lots of artists, lots of them, but they do not spread the money far and wide enough and while they continue to receive inflation rated raises our grant money amounts stay static. This is all supposed to change this year and next as both are undertaking sweeping consultations and funding model changes. We’ll see.

More importantly and urgently though is that the way art is being experienced, consumed and viewed is being altered in a mind spinning, myriad of ways. Most arts organizations, institutions and the not-for-profit model are not set up to deal with any of these changes. Take as one example: space. At one time artists could find space but now accelerated gentrification and the ever expanding real estate market here in Canada is making this almost impossible. Artists are moving everywhere to find places they can work, or they are joining collectives or they are just changing the way they work in order to adapt. What would be helpful is if one of these top down government ministries or agencies would kindly step in between artists and developers to help create spaces that work for them. I know there are models out there of this like Artscape & the amazing Cobalt Connects (these guys deserve way more support and recognition) in Hamilton but this isn’t just happening in and around Toronto, its happening everywhere. And this is but one example.

Arts groups, institutions and organizations that can’t adapt to the new normal must really look at themselves in the mirror as I can’t see these challenges stopping or changing any time soon. Perhaps they need to completely redo their mandates or change the way they work or, and I say this with great sympathy, die a dignified death and give someone or something else a shot at helping.

Image via stylenorth.ca

#art #digital #social media #Ontario #ruralness